Overview:

Another problem for scientific literacy lies with the state of science journalism for lay readers. Here, we reflect on weaker narrative choices, and consider how to make better ones.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Every person with an active interest in the natural world has their personal bugbear when it comes to the way journalists write about science. Maybe it’s neuroscience. Maybe it’s a common engineering problem. For me, it’s evolution. I cannot stand the way that most mainstream media reports on evolution for the everyday reader. And since last week I raised the issue of scientific illiteracy, with a call for self-interrogation, I think it’s only fair to also talk about how media narrative exacerbates this problem. With any luck, we might even come up with a solution or two.

Reporting on evolution bothers me more than most bad science journalism because there’s such a blatant disconnect between the concept itself, which addresses change, and the absolutist language so often used to report on related fields. I want reporters to stop treating the term “evolution” like a monolith. Be specific about your history and mechanisms! And I want them to stop acting like there are only one or two dates in the theory’s development that matter. And I want reporters to be a heck of a lot better at describing what the theory does and does not contain.

This past week, NPR’s Radiolab podcast replayed a 2012 episode called “Inheritance,” which raised my hackles because of its poor reporting on evolution and proved instructive for the same reason. Radiolab, after all, is a podcast that celebrates curiosity, and uses narrative to help take its readers on a journey through a given incident or concept. There’s no scientific ill-intent in its construction. And yet, not all narrative is equal. Some storytelling is better than others when we’re talking about histories of knowledge. So let’s think about why.

Some major “tells” for poor science journalism

In general, the first and biggest tell of bad science journalism around evolution is seeing the name “Darwin” in the headline. It usually emerges in one of two contexts: a sort of “New research shows Darwin was wrong about [X]!” rhetoric, or else a “Darwin proven right!” angle. Both of these have me grinding my teeth, even though what the journalists (and headline-writers) are doing is on the surface understandable. “Oh? Are we writing about evolution again? We should hook readers by giving them a name they’ll recognize!” And in a society where people are more likely to know the names of star quarterbacks than the winners of the last few Nobel Prizes… that means historical references. That means Darwin. Every. Bloody. Time.

(Atheists are no stranger to this phenomenon, either, from how often Dawkins used to show up as an easy headline prop to generate immediate, adversarial controversy around any new commentator in related debate. It’s a lazy journalistic move across the board.)

The problem with constantly referring evolutionary discourse back to Darwin is twofold. First, and most urgently, it sets up the field as a cult of personality. It hangs everything on the defense or tear-down of a single scientist from the 19th century.

Routine readers won’t be surprised, then, when I say that journalism like this makes me empathize with the average person on the “other side” of evolutionary discourse.

Imagine, for instance, someone raised in a charismatic, dogmatic environment where Creationism is given to them as self-evident and evolution as absurd. For that everyday reader of science journalism, the constant invocation of Darwin only gives the impression of a different charismatic, dogmatic environment. Here the creationist is, stumping for the writings of one set of dead people, and now he’s being asked to stump for the writings of another dead person. A person that even the people who accept the theory of evolution (religious and secular alike) admit was just a man! Why bother?

The second problem extends from the first. When we reduce new developments in evolutionary sciences to a simplistic contrast with Darwin’s theories (and those of related contemporaries) we are actively training people away from a fuller understanding of current knowledge. It’s a little like measuring every new world-record-breaking athletic performance against equivalent measures in the 1936 Olympic games. Were those games significant? Did they do transformative work? Absolutely. But it would be ridiculous to measure today’s athletes against 1936 standings when seeking to remark on what is genuinely striking in sports today.

The most accurate and effective reporting, in any field, should seek to present new intel in relation to the standard directly preceding any new breakthrough or discovery. That’s how we help everyday readers understand if a new event is significant, and to what degree.

Radiolab‘s narrative missteps

Radiolab tells stories about interesting ideas, and uses a storytelling model that is often exploratory but also suspenseful. It strings along a narrative with questions and uncertainty, every now and then interrupted by a decisive comment that summarizes the conclusions held at specific points. This kind of storytelling can be quite impactful, but it can also lead to listeners taking decisive claims out of context.

In “Inheritance,” then-hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich open with an introduction to 1800s French naturalist Jean Baptiste Lamarck, and a parent’s longing to be able to rewrite their child’s genetic nature with transformational parenting. But as Krulwich says, “You can’t! That’s what Darwin says: you can’t!”

Then Abumrad says, “Once they’re born, their genes are fixed, and change does not happen in a generation or two. It happens really, really slowly.” Except… “But!” Krulwich says, before the pair dives into a common overlapping speaking style in broadcasting: “This hour we’re going to fight this sort of sad-sack feeling of inevitability and impotence, and rewrite the so-called rules of genetics. That’s right. Today, on Radiolab, we’re going to lick some rats, starve some Swedes, pay some people to change destiny. I mean, we’re not going to do that ourselves, but we’re going to play the stories where these things actually happened!”

Can you see where this would immediately create misunderstandings of the science?

The problem with binaries

In the opening episode of Global Humanist Shoptalk, I talked about why I dislike the use of “hooks” in reporting. This Radiolab episode is an excellent object lesson. In their quest to create a compelling story, the hosts establish two personalities, two camps in the history of evolutionary theory. Which is exciting, for sure. But in their pointed omission of the word and whole subdiscipline “epigenetics” (it seems to come up only in passing, with an interviewee), they’ve misrepresented the full spectrum of evolutionary theory right out the gate.

Worse yet, some of the phrasing used throughout the episode also gives the impression that gradualism was the only other game in town. So long, island biogeography! Adios, punctuated equilibrium debate! Goodbye speedier climate-change adaptations, even as they were understood before the show’s first air date!

It’s either short-term Lamarck or gradualist Darwin, in this view of evolutionary theory.

I mean, it’s right there in the opener, no? “This hour … we’re going to rewrite the so-called rules of genetics.” Which right away gives the impression that the current rules need rewriting. Except, they don’t! All the hosts are doing is helping anyone stuck in the 19th century get a bit closer to the way the field stands in the 21st.

I know the aim is well-intentioned. The use of such clickbait-y turns of phrase is meant to make the story sound thrilling, and to cultivate listener interest in learning more about evolution. But when one has to throw the history of science under the bus in the process? Maybe the narrative style isn’t exactly serving scientific literacy after all.

All right, Negative Nelly: What’s better?

As I hinted above, one immediate fix for a case like that Radiolab episode would be to give up on some of the mystery that comes from introductory evasion. Name upfront where the best scientific intel lies today, and establish the aim of your work as exploring some of the history that got us to where we are today.

Also, all throughout this episode, I kept waiting for a useful lay-analogy for what we now know about our genes, and it never arrived. Yes, the pair talked about gene expression in their second story, about how rat mothers licking their babies triggered the release of proteins that reduce methylation, a key epigenetic mechanism. But even writing that sentence, which distills some of an interviewee’s answers, illustrates the problem. Although some more accessible language was used in the moment, the episode still didn’t leave a clear sense of how genes generally work.

Changing, not eliminating, literary flourishes

I have a personal preference for genetic analogy in casual conversation, but I’ll first stress that I don’t expect this to become everyone’s standard. I invoke it only because I think it illustrates how easily we could change people’s baseline understanding of evolutionary genetics. There’s no reason that people have to start out with an assumption of DNA as perfectly rigid or passive.

When I talk to fellow lay-people, instead of treating genes as fully static sites, I describe them as audio mixers. That’s still a fixed object! You’re still given a specific mixer, and stuck with the dials and switches that come with it. But the position of those dials and switches can also be affected over your lifetime. And when you pass on your board or mixer, it’s quite possible that its dials and switches will be in different positions from when you first received it. (Also, if you exposed your mixer to too much of the wrong kind of radiation, inherited outcomes will definitely vary!)

And that change isn’t evolutionarily neutral, either. If your dials and switches were in good positions for your environment when you passed them on, the next owner might start out with an advantage over someone with less ideal settings. (Such as the drug-addicted newborns described elsewhere in the Radiolab episode. Genetics and epigenetics both play a role in those painful cases.)

This analogy also works well with original Mendelian genetics, which helped to pioneer our understanding of discrete units of inheritance known as genes. Your parents came together to make a mixer just for you, and in the process gave you lots of redundant switches and dials, some of which are going to be used more than others. This ties into the idea of recessive traits (i.e., dormant “switches”) that might still become important when you use your board as its own template, in collaboration with someone else, to make new mixers for offspring of your own.

Again, this is just one example. But the point is that storytelling in general is not the problem. We simply have to be careful about the narrative choices we make in science journalism. When we describe concepts like “evolution” or “genes” too rigidly and reductively, or with too much prioritization of early theorizing over contemporary knowledge, we can reinforce already weak scientific literacy around a given subject.

And when we organize science histories around people critical to their development? We have to be extra careful not to conflate the soundness of any emerging theory with the personality of the researcher. It’s not about Lamarck or Darwin or any evolutionary researcher who came after being “right” or “vindicated”. It’s about asking what the best scientific data of our day and age can tell us about our world.

The most accurate and effective reporting, in any field, should seek to present new intel in relation to the standard directly preceding any new breakthrough or discovery. That’s how we help everyday readers understand if a new event is significant, and to what degree.

Better science journalism for everyday readers

I’ve lingered awhile today in the realm of my science journalism bugbear, but I’m sure you’ve seen similar problems play out around your own. Here are some principles I’ve drawn from my experiences with weaker science journalism for everyday readers. Maybe you can add to / refine some of these, with thoughts and insights from your own?

  1. Avoid talking about new discoveries and breakthroughs in light of ancient history. As much as possible, present a clear view of what the field looked like just before this news event, to contextualize whether the announcement is significant and to what extent.
  2. Cultivate a healthy distance between talking about the key theories and concepts in any given discipline, and about the people who most notably advanced them. As much as possible, avoid treating new scientific intel as fodder in a rivalry between specific human beings.
  3. Foreground the most contemporary understanding of a given field before launching into any grand narrative about the history of science, to reduce the chances of someone taking a declarative statement in the middle of your story as an accurate representation of today’s most up-to-date intel.
  4. Stress the limits of new data, especially when it comes to possible consequences. It’s fun to revel in what-ifs, but it’s more important to foster a healthy curiosity about unfolding research, with an emphasis on what is and is not definitively known. (Bonus points if you can give readers a sense of what to look for in follow-up research on the theme!)
  5. Use analogies when they help, but make abundantly clear that they’re only approximations, and don’t get so attached to a given analogy that you’ll cling to it tooth and nail when some data no longer fits. The aim is to simplify, not confound.

What would you add to this list, or modify?

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.